October 14, 2023

Trying to make sense of a senseless and brutal attack in Israel


PERF members,

This week I was planning to write something brief about the agenda for our Town Hall meeting tomorrow in San Diego, but I feel the need to write about what’s really been on my mind: Hamas’s gut-wrenching, devastating attack on Israel. For the past week I’ve felt a profound sense of sadness and worry about the implications of this tragedy. As President Biden said, the images showed “pure, unadulterated evil.” The 1,300 Israeli victims killed and more than 3,200 injured include women, children, concert attendees, and those just going about their lives on a kibbutz. And approximately 150 people have been kidnapped, a situation reminiscent of the Munich Olympics kidnappings or the Entebbe raid, but on a much larger scale.

This hit particularly close to home because PERF has a long history of working in the Middle East. A number of years ago, a group of American law enforcement officials and I visited Sderot, a town in southern Israel less than a mile from the border with Gaza. The townspeople greeted us warmly, and the mayor showed us a pile of Qassam rockets fired at the community by Hamas, as well as the bomb shelters where residents regularly protected themselves from incoming missiles. Former New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer, who was with me on the trip to Sderot, reminded me this week of the community’s resilience in the face of a constant threat. We met with police, and they didn’t seem bothered by the threat posed by Hamas less than a mile away.

Last week Sderot was attacked by Hamas, who killed 20 civilians, took control of the police station, and killed officers inside. This three-and-a-half-minute video from the New York Times depicts the horror that occurred in the community.  Much like we’ve seen throughout Ukraine over the past 18 months, Israeli police in Sderot and other towns near the Gaza border were forced into a military role to protect their communities.

Americans may consider ourselves safe from an attack like this, given our current relationships with our neighbors. But we do have to be prepared for sudden, unexpected acts of terror. The obvious example is 9/11. And on a much smaller scale, there are incidents like the anthrax attacks in the weeks following 9/11, when five people were killed and 17 injured by letters containing anthrax mailed to two U.S. senators and five media outlets.

In the Washington, D.C. area the following October, 10 people were killed and three wounded over the course of three weeks in the “Beltway sniper” attacks. Many people were afraid to leave their houses for weeks, until the two individuals responsible were caught. The complex, multi-jurisdictional investigation that led to their arrest involved local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Just two individuals with a rifle were able to terrorize an entire region, and it’s conceivable that a similar attack could occur on a larger scale. If, instead of just two individuals with a gun, multiple teams across the country attacked simultaneously, would we be prepared? 

An event like this could occur anywhere, and agencies large and small need to be equipped and trained to respond. A main takeaway of the 9/11 Commission’s final report was that everyone needs to imagine and prepare for the unexpected.

It’s impossible to make sense of the senseless violence that occurred in Israel last week, and the country faces daunting choices in the coming days. There are roughly 150 hostages held in Gaza – bringing them back safely will be a complicated and difficult mission. And a military incursion to root out Hamas will likely involve urban combat in Gaza and many civilian casualties.

I wish I had a more uplifting message today, but it wouldn’t have felt right to write about anything else this week. We will discuss the attack in Israel, along with a number of issues facing policing today, at the PERF Town Hall tomorrow from 1:00-5:00 p.m. at the IACP Conference in San Diego (Ballroom 20 A-D of the San Diego Convention Center).